When people talk about the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, they tend to focus on the problems. And of those problems, the most common mentioned are drugs, poverty, mental health, HIV/AIDS, and gentrification. A lot of these problems, though, are rather recent for the 130 year old village. The one problem that has been constant throughout all these years has been displacement. The neighbourhood wouldn’t exist without the initial displacement of the native bands that had fished and traded on the shores for centuries before the Europeans settled here. Our house lies in what has historically been called Japantown. However, Japanese haven’t lived here since World War II, when the local Japanese were interned (ironically, Japantown might be the only neighbourhood in the entire city without a sushi restaurant).
Two decades later, the small black community in Vancouver, which owned a series of restaurants on Union Street, pretty much ceased to exist when the city decided to add a highway into downtown. They chose the corridor that included Union and Prior streets to convert into the highway, but it was never completed due to protesting. Nevertheless, the black-owned storefronts were displaced through imminent domain. You can still see the results of the cancelled off-ramp for the highway at Union and Gore (see satellite image). The only things remaining from that era are a church building and a chicken shack that was converted into a Jimi Hendrix shrine (Jimi’s grandmother, Nora, worked as a cook at one of the restaurants).
A couple decades later, on the centennial of the the city, Vancouver was to host the Worlds Fair, known throughout Canada as Expo ’86. I didn’t live in Vancouver or Canada at the time, but it seems pretty clear that Expo ’86 might be the most important event the city has experienced since the railroad came to town. Like the Olympics 24 years later, many landlords tried to capitalize on the influx of visitors by making some of their properties available for high-priced short-term rent. Their was a lot of outrage in the Downtown Eastside due to the longterm residents that were displaced from 15 hotels for the sake of these visitors. The unwitting symbol of the evictions was an 84 year old retired logger named Olaf Solheim. He was forced to leave the Patricia Hotel on Hastings and Dunleavy and died shortly thereafter. The city’s Medical Health Officer ruled that the death was a result of eviction.
I remember very well where I first heard of Olaf Solheim. Roughly 15 years after Expo ’86, I was taking a class on the suffering of the innocent and the book of Job being taught at First United Church on Gore and Hastings. One day we were invited to a walk and commemoration of all of the people who had died unnecessarily in the neighbourhood. We walked from the Carnegie Community centre on Hastings and Main down to Oppenheimer Park where there was a graveyard made up of crosses taking up the baseball field. When we walked by the Patricia Hotel several people made rude gestures and swore at the owner of the Patricia, invoking the name of Olaf Solheim in the process. The wound was still raw from years ago.
A few years after that, the Downtown Eastside Residence Association built a new social housing complex on the block where Nora Hendrix used to cook chicken in the ’50s and ’60s. The complex is called Solheim place, after Olaf Solheim. The view of many of the residents is the remnants of the failed highway project. It was celebrated by many of the activists as a minor victory, stemming the tide of gentrification that displaces those unable to participate in the impersonal economic forces.
I walked down to the building the other day on the event of our car insurance expiration. The ground floor of the complex is made up of storefronts, one of which is a car insurance broker. The rest of the store fronts, from Gore to the Jimi Hendrix shrine the next block over, have gradually changed over from low-end shops catering to the people who live nearby to shops that could double as sets for the TV show Portlandia: a high-end bike shop that specializes in fixies, an artisan organic market, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant, and two high-end clothing shops that barely have enough clothes for one. The irony hasn’t escaped many, but irony can’t stop profits.